November 12, 2019

JI Symposium draws 80-plus U-M faculty to Beijing to advance partnership

Nearly 90 U-M faculty traveled to Beijing for the ninth annual JI Symposium.

More than 80 Michigan Medicine leaders, faculty and staff made a recent visit to China to celebrate and advance the medical school’s largest international partnership.

The ninth annual Michigan Medicine-Peking University Health Science Center (PKUHSC) Joint Institute Symposium took place Oct. 30 through Nov. 1 at the PKUHSC campus in Beijing. Themed Molecular Medicine, the meeting included keynote addresses by leaders from both institutions, panel talks on artificial intelligence and technology transfer, presentations by several Joint Institute project PIs, and more.

“There are some challenges between China and America, but I hope the President of the United States and the leaders of our country can come here to see … the relationship between Peking University and the University of Michigan and the benefits we get from each other,” said Qide Han, MD, the past president of PKUHSC and a vice chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, at the meeting’s kick-off session. “This partnership makes me optimistic that our two countries will move in the right direction.”

Launched in 2010, the Joint Institute (JI) has grown to comprise 60 individual research projects co-led by investigators from each institution, research that spans a variety of disciplines and has to date garnered 67 publications and more than $24 million in extramural funding in the US alone. Collectively, JI projects have about 128,000 patients under study in both China and the United States.

“I’m often contacted by peers at other institutions asking me, ‘How are you doing this in China? I know you can’t get samples or data out of China.’ But we’ve shown that we can,” said Senior Associate Dean for Education and Global Initiatives Joseph Kolars, MD, who serves as co-Director for the JI. “We’ve been very successful because of the trust, the relationships, and the unique model we’ve developed.”

The model includes a mechanism to co-fund the collaborators’ joint research projects as well as a framework of three administrative “core” teams – Collaboration, Biorepository, and Institutional Review Board/Human Protection – that work to support the project investigators in areas like data sharing, adhering to regulatory guidelines, and even matching up collaborators in new areas of investigation.

JI projects touch on many disciplines including cardiovascular, renal, liver, and pulmonary disease, as well as partnerships in emergency medicine, ophthalmology, and women’s health. Among 12 new research projects awarded for 2019 are several areas new to the JI, including dentistry and pharmacy.

“My lab in the School of Pharmacy is already integrated with the U-M medical school, so this was a good opportunity to enhance multidisciplinary collaboration and at the same time build a broader collaboration with the pharmacy school at PKUHSC,” said first-time JI Symposium attendee Duxin Sun, PhD, U-M Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Sun’s JI project with PKUHSC Vice President Ning Zhang, PhD explores the possibility of developing personalized cancer therapies through the study of tumor heterogeneity.

“Part of my work involves single-cell tumor heterogeneity in breast cancer. Coincidentally, Ning Zhang studies single-cell heterogeneity in liver cancer, so it was a good match,” Sun said. “We have techniques they don’t have and vice versa, plus together we have collectively a larger sample size to advance the work more quickly.”

Visual sciences is another area that is new to JI. Professor of Ophthalmology David Zacks and his PKUHSC counterpart, Dr. Liu Yang, are teaming up on the JI’s first study in ophthalmology, exploring the molecular mechanisms underlying photoreceptor cell death during disease.

“We realized that we could leverage the strengths of our two labs to gain more insights into mechanisms of cell death, the goal being to ultimately develop therapies to keep the cells alive and improve visual outcomes,” said Zacks, who traveled to Beijing for the 2019 Symposium. “Our work will benefit both institutions tremendously by allowing for the sharing of information and gaining of knowledge.  We look forward to initiating and strengthening this collaboration, and are optimistic that together we can help find new therapies for patients.”

In addition to dozens of U-M faculty who work on JI projects, the Ann Arbor delegation included Michigan Medicine Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Marschall Runge, MD, PhD; Executive Vice Dean for Academic Affairs Carol Bradford, MD, MS; Executive Vice Dean for Research Steven Kunkel, PhD; and Chair of Internal Medicine John Carethers, MD. Carethers delivered a keynote address along with Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine David Pinsky, MD.

As the JI approaches its 10-year anniversary in 2020, leaders from both institutions are looking to advance the partnership in new directions, including exploring connections with – and attracting investment from – the health industry, as well as guiding more collective, multidisciplinary collaboration.

“I think we’ve shown what we’re capable of in terms of helping individual investigators find each other and create their own questions,” Kolars said. “We believe the next step is to build collective teams to rally around some larger questions, big ideas with the potential to really make a difference for the Chinese people and for the American people.”

The tenth JI Symposium will be held in Ann Arbor 2020 which will be in conjunction with the tenth year’s celebration and renewal of the partnership.